A dermatological scourge has brought people together in itchy commiseration, and proved yet again that the 'Net is a potent tool for community support and knowledge sharing.
At one of Cape Town's respectable drinking venues last weekend, two friends lifted their shirts to show me what they'd picked up at the annual Origin electronic music festival.
They looked like victims of some plague from the 11th century. Their torsos (and other parts mercifully not visible) were covered with skin-crawling red welts and streaks. "Cover yourselves!" I hissed, anxious that other patrons would see.
Too late. A cool young dude at another table called out: "Hey! Origin!"
Likely hundreds of people in and around the metropole have been struggling with this unsightly, maddeningly itchy blight since Origin 2009 – an Electronic Music & Psychedelic Art Festival based on Conscious Party Ethics, as the organizers describe it – held recently in the Du Toitskloof mountains near Rawsonville, about 75km outside Cape Town.
"Origin Itch" (from the Facebook group of the same name), resulted in an instant community, its members united by their uncomfortable skins and the quest to find both cause and cure.
What tickles the web-based among us, particularly those with a Health leaning, is that Origin Itch is such a great example, not only of the camaraderie common suffering brings about, but of how the Internet can facilitate both this bonding process and the dissemination of useful information.
Though I was glad for other reasons too. At regularly intervals, a sizeable sector of my social group treks into the countryside for weekends of the trance party Origin sort, and return looking pleased with themselves. I did go along once but crowd-phobia and general free-floating neurosis worked against any hedonistic enjoyment on offer.
So when it seemed they'd come back this time with a humiliating pox that would assure rejection by decent society, it seemed just deserts for milling about with a mass of unclean people and having too much of a good time without me.
However, they don't seem to be particularly humiliated, and, as it turns out, they aren't contagious either.
Attack of the Chiggers
Although not yet definitively I.D.'d, the culprit is almost certainly insectoid or arachnoid, probably a mite. Not that this narrows it down much, because there are thousands of mite species, many of them invisible to the naked eye.
Owner of the venue where Origin '09 was held, Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, who has thrown himself into researching the issue, is hoping to collect some specimens to send to the experts.
Origin-goers worst affected were primarily those who camped in an area where there is a stand of black wattle, and a lot of bark, dust and debris where the mites could hang out, reports Michael.
It's still only speculation at this stage, but it may well be that the beasts responsible are "chiggers", the larvae of the harvest mite –
or at least something quite similar. These minute creatures hang out in natural settings waiting for unsuspecting humans and other animals, then they clamber onto you, insert their mouthparts into a skin pore or hair follicle, and feed.
This is the result:
A courageous Chris Rault displays his splendidly florid case of Origin Itch.
A couple more prefer-to-remain-anonymous examples from the Itch community:
Some victims also developed a secondary reaction to the bites – long red streaks, which, according to several local GPs (who've probably formed a chigger support group themselves by now) is localized infection of a blood vessel.
The good news is that the effects of mite bites are likely to persist for about ten days to three weeks, after which there shouldn't be any lasting ill-effects. Most of the Origin Itchers (the ones we know about anyway) are now in recovery, thanks to shared remedies ranging from Ibuprofen gel to bathing in rooibos and cayenne pepper.
Another sure sign they're on the mend is that they're already planning their next excursion into the electronic psychedelic countryside. Michael, an ardent environmentalist, says he has every intention of holding future events on his property, although he plans to remove the alien wattle and look into other bio-sensitive ways to solve the problem.
We're going to be reporting back on the investigation, so watch this space... Failing a positive I.D. down to the exact mite species, though, a broad preventive measure after any camping expedition is a good scrub of yourself and your belongings with plenty of hot soapy water. Discuss any worrying symptoms with your doctor, and seek immediate medical help if you show signs of anaphylactic shock, a rare but serious allergic reaction.
Finally, as one member of Origin Itch, whose "bottom and legs have been invaded" points out, remembering our place in the greater scheme of things is also helpful when under seige from mites and other infestations: "This is obviously just something that we all need to experience, maybe the power of nature reminding us that we are indeed not the only creatures living on this earth and that we need to take more care of it."
- (Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, February 2009)
We're hoping to get a Health24 gallery going of interesting medical complaints such as this. Please email me on email@example.com if you have any ideas or material you'd like to share. Oh, and yes: such material does need to be within the bounds of good taste and public decency...
Read more about the brave Origin Itchers